In October, I joined Viking on the Danube Waltz cruise. This was my second time with Viking Cruises; I was absolutely blown away by every port city and the inspiring shore excursions on the Danube Waltz.
Traveling with Viking Cruises is special, no question; their unique cultural immersion programs, shore excursions, elegantly designed ships, and food and beverage program are recognized by travel experts the world over. In fact, Viking has been rated the number one river cruise operator by Travel & Leisure (15 years in a row), Conde Nast Traveler (14 years), Afar, Fodors, and Cruise Critic.
Danube Waltz Shore Excursion options
Viking offers classic and iconic tours with local guides at every port–some optional, and some included. Every excursion is listed in both your cruise documents and on the Viking website. I take all the included tours, because Viking only books guides who are experts on their chosen destination.
Optional tours are designed to give you further opportunities to dive deeper into the culture. In Budapest, you could visit the iconic Széchenyi Bathhouse for a slice of local life, or learn to make Hungarian pancakes and tour the Grand Market.
What makes the shore excursions so special?
One of the exclusive Viking excursions offered on the Danube Waltz itinerary was a visit to Gottweig Abbey with spectacular views over the Wachau Valley. Viking guests have the opportunity to tour the 900-year-old abbey (including the library, which houses 130,000 books), view a short film about life at the abbey, and admire the extensive art collection. We also enjoyed a taste of sparkling apricot wine made by the Benedictine monks who live and work at the abbey. Viking is the only cruise line with access to Gottweig Abbey. This is one example of Viking’s privileged access tours.
How to enrich your onshore experience while onboard the ship
Participating in the cultural programs offered onboard is another way to enrich your experience– and some of my most memorable moments were on the ship.
For example, before arriving in Vienna, we enjoyed a musical evening which included our Program Director (a classical violinist) playing the violin for us, as well as learning about the rich musical inheritance Vienna gave the world. We also received the 411 on Vienna’s world-renowned coffee houses.
Even though I’m a very independent traveler, I quickly grew to appreciate the scope of cultural knowledge and educational preparation that Viking offers; I could simply enjoy the immersion in the history and culture of each port.
How To Make the Most of Viking Shore Excursions
Important Tip: Your Viking Cruise Documents
Shortly after confirming your booking, you’ll receive your cruise documents in the mail. Everything you need to know about arrival, departure, currency, the ship, the ports, food and beverage, tipping, baggage, and Viking’s commitment to you is within the pages of your cruise documents. It is put together for your convenience.
You will also find a wealth of information on the Viking River Cruises website, such as suggestions for films and mini language lessons related to your itinerary. They are all designed to enhance your trip. I read two historical books about Vienna from the suggested reading list. I have always found that having some historical context makes any experience more enjoyable and deepens my understanding.
First: Two Critical Things
To make the most of the excursions offered, consider these two things:
your interests and your level of fitness. For example, some tours involve steep walks or bicycling. If for some reason you are unable to walk up a steep hill or steps, don’t go on that tour. The level of difficulty is indicated in the description of the tour. If you don’t like dancing, then you wouldn’t take a waltz lesson in Vienna.
Our tour director jokingly referred to traveling with Viking as Bootcamp, but it’s somewhat true. Most tours are in the morning and leave by 8:00 am, at the latest.
Tip: Remember, there is no obligation to take any tour, ever.
You’ll want to get up early enough to have breakfast; most tours last one and a half or two hours, unless it’s a destination like Gottweig Abbey or Cesky Krumlov, which are half-day trips. You won’t have a chance to eat again until the end of the tour. Of course, you can tuck something into your day bag if you need a snack before lunch.
Every room onboard the ship has a set of audio devices that you take with you on tours (one per person). They allow you to hear the tour guides even if you’re walking in the back of the group. Make sure your device(s) are charged and ready to go each morning. I forgot mine once and yes, there was a spare, but don’t count on this. The best practice is when you return to the ship after the morning excursion, go to your room and put it back on the charger, unless you’re going out on another tour that requires it.
Before dinner each day there is a gathering in the lounge for a port talk with the Program Director. You’ll want to go to these. Aside from being informative, they’re fun. Have a drink, sit next to someone new, strike up a conversation, and make plans for dinner. In addition, you’ll usually hear from Chef about menu specialties for the evening. There is always a regional menu, as well as classical cuisine prepared with local ingredients.
Each evening, you will find a Viking Daily newsletter in your room with information about the next port city, as well as some fun trivia about the region, food and culture, restaurant suggestions, and other tips. These are great for making note of things you want to be sure not to miss. In fact, the Viking Daily was often my evening reading material–I’m geeky that way.
To recap: sleep well, wake up early, eat breakfast, have everything you need for the day ready to go. And make sure you don’t forget your earbuds and audio device.
Tip: Always carry the contact information for the boat with you, including the phone number– and make sure your cell phone is charged (carry a spare battery if needed.) I was once separated from the group, and my bag was on the bus. But, I had my cell phone in my pocket (because I was taking photos with it) and the card with the number for the boat. I was able to call the boat and explain what happened and where I was.
Viking Danube Waltz: Ports & Excursions
Budapest to Passau
Now for the fun: an overview of the ports and excursions on Viking’s Danube Waltz cruise. In 2017, AFAR magazine’s Travelers’ Choice Awards named Viking the “Best Danube River Cruise Operator,” for its small ships, elegant staterooms, regional Austrian and Hungarian cuisine, and expert staff. Now that I’ve done this cruise, I would offer my vote as well. I enjoyed my dance along the Danube–and my dance card was always full.
I joined the Danube Waltz in Budapest; it was apparent right away why it is referred to as the Paris of the East–the lights along the river and bridges are very romantic. And because Viking is given first preference in Budapest, your ship will be docked within easy walking distance of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, a suspension bridge connecting the two parts of the city. It is easily one of the most beautiful bridges crossing the Danube.
The Panoramic Budapest tour takes you by bus around Pest, then up Buda Castle Hill to visit Matthias Church (named for King Matthias) and the Fisherman’s Bastion. The views are spectacular, so be sure you have your camera or phone ready for action.
Budapest is intriguing because it is a city divided by the river; on the west side is Buda and on the east side, Pest. Pest is a treasure of art nouveau and 19th-century architecture with a wonderful market, great restaurants, and shopping. More recent historical monuments, like Hero’s Square, can be seen on the Pest side.
Buda Castle Hill, the Parliament building, the iconic Chain Bridge, and the banks of the Danube have all received UNESCO World Heritage designation.
The capital of Slovakia, Bratislava is the only capital that borders two countries, Hungary and Austria. In its heyday, Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, spent quite a lot of time there, as it was part of the Hungarian Empire.
The charming historic center is an inviting place to pass a day or two. I would say Bratislava is emerging as one of the more interesting cities along the Danube. In spite of being small for a capital city (population around 450,000), there is good shopping, fun pubs, and I spotted a really nice wine bar. After your Bratislava Panoramic tour, do a little shopping for something special to take home. I brought home a music box with The Kiss, a painting by Gustav Klimt, as a cover.
The included tour in Bratislava is either a walking tour or a drive/walk. The drive will take you up the hill to the Bratislava Castle, the former home of the Hungarian crown jewels. Both tours include a walk through the charming old town along the Amber Road, once a trade route linking Northern and Southern Europe. You’ll also see St. Martins’ Cathedral, which was the coronation church for 10 kings, and where Maria Theresa was crowned Queen of Hungary in 1741.
Oh, Vienna! With so much beauty and culture to offer, how can anyone make a choice when it comes to the tours? In addition to the included city tour, there are six optional excursions offered, from the Imperial Vienna tour to a classical concert. I took the included tour, then spent the day wandering the streets of Vienna before returning to the ship for the optional Heurigen evening excursion.
The included tour, Panoramic Vienna, touches on the highlights in the historic center, protected by UNESCO. This includes the exterior of the Hofburg Palace, a walk by the stables of the Lipizzaner Stallions, the Roman ruins that have been excavated just outside the palace, and the magnificent St Stephen’s Cathedral.
No matter what you do in Vienna, you’ll want to take some time for that most Viennese of traditions, coffee. Did you know that Viennese coffee culture is classified as intangible cultural heritage and recognized by UNESCO? I managed to try three different places: Demel, Cafe Eiles, and Cafe Espresso.
What makes Demel special?
Everyone should try Demel, located in the historic center just outside of the Hofburg Palace. Demel served the royal palace and its inhabitants and is one of the oldest coffee houses in Vienna. I had hot chocolate because I knew I would have coffee later; my friends all ordered some sort of special Viennese coffee drink. Everything was served in classical style on a small silver tray with a shot of water on the side. I quite like this tradition and wish it would make its way stateside. Demel is also known for fantastic pastries and cakes. There’s a kitchen in the back where you can watch them making these sweet creations.
The Heurigen evening was a highlight of the trip for me. You’re probably wondering what a Heurigen is if you’ve never been to Austria. The Heurigen refers to a seasonal winery only open after harvest, when the winemaker will then sell the new wine. Heurige means from this year. A Heurigen evening includes not only wine, but lots of food, too–something that is not traditional, but has grown with the times and popularity with tourists.
As guests of Viking, we were treated to an evening at Heuriger Wolff, one of the oldest winemaking families in Vienna. You’ll see the sign above the entrance says 1609…that’s a long time! There was live traditional music, many toasts, and a feeling of gemutlichkeit, or good cheer, was definitely present. One of the crew who was along with us for the Heurigen evening said he never misses the opportunity to go. That’s a darn good recommendation.
Krems and Gottweig Abbey
Ah, Krems. I woke up and looked out my window to see church steeples piercing a heavy layer of fog. We may have left the glamour of Vienna behind, but there was more Austrian treasure to discover. Krems and Stein, once two separate towns, are part of the Wachau Valley cultural landscape. Settlement in Krems dates back to the Neolithic era. It was once more important than Vienna for its wine and salt trade. Cobblestone streets and vineyard terraces are the hallmarks of this charming town. Also, the tour to Gottweig Abbey departs from Krems.
The Wachau Valley
When the ship departs Krems, have your camera ready, because the rest of the day will be spent cruising the Wachau Valley.
The Wachau Valley stretches from Krems to Melk, and has been a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. It is considered the prettiest part of the Danube River. The Wachau is mainly known for picturesque castle ruins, medieval towns, and its bucolic vineyards. The signature grape is Gruner Veltliner, a white wine grape that produces a wine that is acidic and aromatic, with notes of citrus and pepper. The other known grape from the Wachau is Riesling – usually dry and crisp, though there are late harvest dessert wines too.
Linz and Cesky Krumlov
The next port is Linz, and there are two excursions, both included: a walking tour of Linz, home of the Linzer torte, and a walking tour of the storybook town of Cesky Krumlov, another Unesco site, located in the Czech Republic.
Linz was heavily bombed during WWII, as it was an important industrial city. However, there are still some buildings of architectural and historical significance standing, such as the Mozarthaus, where the composer wrote the Linz Symphony. You can choose to stay in the port and tour Linz, or travel to Cesky Krumlov, a half-day tour. Or, choose a day free to do whatever you like!
Included tour Cesky Krumlov walking tour
Transport to Cesky Krumlov is by bus, which affords an opportunity to gaze upon the pretty countryside. Our guide regaled us with both history and stories of growing up in a communist country, as well as what life is like in the Czech Republic today. I learned a lot!
Once in Cesky Krumlov, the tour includes the exterior of the upper and lower castle, the town hall, pharmacy, and monastery. The castle buildings, as well as most of the buildings in the center of the town, are covered in the most beautiful frescoes. I marveled at how well restored they are.
After the tour, we had lunch at a traditional Czech restaurant specializing in the food of the region. This is really what was considered peasant food – food for working people who needed a hearty meal. I had the most delicious cabbage soup there I have ever eaten in my life, thanks to the recommendation of our tour guide.
My only regret was that there really wasn’t enough time to visit the castle museums, climb the tower, or float down the Vltava river, and eat lunch. My tip for this trip: if possible go in the offseason or spend the night. Cesky Krumlov has become very popular and is crawling with tourists, especially around the castle. Once you filter into the town, it’s less congested. However, if that’s not an option, just go! It’s worth it.
The final port on this cruise is Passau, Germany, a most charming slice of Bavaria. Located at the confluence of the Inn, Ilz, and Danube rivers, it was founded over 2000 years ago. An old fort, Veste Oberhaus, built in 1219, looks down from the north side of the Danube, and though I did not hike there, I’m told aside from the views it’s a great place to enjoy a beer.
An optional tour from Passau is the Neuschwanstein Castle tour. You will be transported by helicopter. Neuschwanstein Castle was the inspiration for the Disney castle. Other optional tours here include hiking the Passau hills, Bavaria by bike, and a visit to a Bavarian farm.
I think the best tour, however, is the Passau Walking Tour, which is a stroll through the city, culminating in an organ concert at St. Stephen’s church. A baroque dream that will surely remind you of Rome and Bernini, St. Stephen’s is home to Europe’s largest pipe organ, which has more than 17,000 pipes.
I loved Passau – it felt like I was in Italy with its winding cobblestone alleyways, Baroque facades, arches and even businesses with Italian names. If you didn’t look at the street signs you might not know where you were but then again, there was no graffiti and everything was very clean and organized.
Alas, Passau was our port of disembarkation. Every single person I spoke to on the trip loved Passau and was sorry to not have another day there. Not only that, but it was time to say goodbye to Viking and new friends. Of course, if you care to extend your stay, Viking can arrange that for you, too. Many people extend their time to visit Prague, Munich, or return to Vienna.
As a guest of Viking, you’re guaranteed a cultural experience like no other. Now, armed with all this pre-cruise knowledge, you can be sure to make the most of every shore excursion on the Viking Danube Waltz.
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A portion of my trip on the Danube River was sponsored by Viking Cruises. As always, if I don’t honestly like something, I don’t write about it. All opinions are mine alone.